Turbulence on the Anthropological Path

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Adamu Jenitongo greeting the spirits at a spirit possession ceremony in Tillaberi, Niger. Photo by Paul Stoller

During my long apprenticeship to Adamu Jenitongo, a great healer among the Songhay people of Niger, my mentor recounted countless stories to convey to me the wisdom of his ancestors. Here’s one story that is germane to current discussions that have emerged in the wake of the implosion of HAU, a prestigious anthropological journal that has also published scholarly books.

At the market of a town on the great River Niger, an old man sold firewood. In a feeble attempt to save quickly disappearing forests, the state forbade the sale of firewood. And yet, week-in and week-out the frail old man, who always wore soiled trousers and a frayed tunic, sold his wares. As the local, do, master of the local waters, no one wanted to confront him. One day a dugout brought to the market a uniformed forest ranger–tall, thick and fearsome. He approached the old man and began to belittle him for selling firewood. A crowd gathered. When the old man protested, the forest ranger slapped him in the face. The crowd gasped. The forest ranger smiled and confiscated the old man’s firewood. Humiliated, the old man staggered away. His mission accomplished, the forest ranger, who knew nothing of the old man’s mastery of the waters, needed to take a dugout back across the river, where he would have his driver take him back to Tillaberi, the town that housed the provincial government.

 No one wanted to take the forest ranger across the river.

 The old man reassured the canoeists that that they’d be fine. “It’s okay,” he told them, “take him across.”

 The dugout slipped out into the River Niger. When it reached midstream, a whirlpool developed.   The water’s force threw the forest ranger overboard. He drowned. The dugout and canoeists returned safely to shore.

Having told the story, Adamu Jenitongo said: “People sometimes surprise you. Who would give that frail old man a second look? But he had powerful river magic. That government man lacked respect. He suffered the consequences. The best course, my son, is to show some respect for everyone–especially elders.”

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On June 2 of this year I agreed to serve a new three year term on the Editorial Board (EB) of HAU, which in a few short years had quickly become not only a leading journal of anthropology, but also a publisher of highly esteemed books. During my first three years on the EB, I knew very little about the inner dynamics of HAU as an organization, but was happy to contribute in a small way to its mission to reaffirm the great traditions of anthropological thought.

Roughly two weeks after my acceptance of the EB renewal invitation, I began to read on social media a series of serious allegations about the inner-workings of the journal as well as a wide-ranging set of disturbing allegations about the abusive behavior of its editor-in-chief. Given the scope and depth of the allegations, I resigned from the EB.

For me, the ongoing implosion of HAU is a sad event. I’m a great believer in honoring our academic ancestors and learning from their imperfect traditions. Even so, the speedy unraveling of an institution that perhaps grew too big and too fast is a life lesson for us all. Anthropologists of all persuasions and generations have written thoughtfully about how the implosion of HAU brings into relief all sorts of social and disciplinary cleavages. Beyond the disturbing allegations of misogyny, power-tripping, and questionable dealings, I wonder what the implosion of HAU means for the future of our discipline.   Many commentators have discussed the persistence of anthropology’s colonial edifice, an edifice in which prestige and intellectual power is centered in a few elite institutions. The view from the top, of course, tends to narrow the institutional gaze and to silence marginalized voices on the intellectual periphery. This centralization, in turn, has determined who is hired, what is “in” and what is “out”, and how our work has been—or has not been—valued.

The image and reality of the academic top, of course, is still present and foreboding for those who occupy the lowly margins. In anthropology, as the implosion of HAU has demonstrated, social media have begun to level the playing field. We now discuss open-access journals and advocate for a wide-variety of media to do and represent anthropology. Despite these developments there remain significant structural inequalities, a theme that has bubbled up in the recent debates. Is there a widening divide between senior and junior anthropologists, between securely tenured scholars and precariously employed academics and graduate students? Has this divide precipitated anger, distrust, and lack of mutual respect?

In all of the edifying anthropological debate about structural and gender inequalities, open access publishing, decolonizing the discipline, and abusive behavior in professional settings, we have perhaps paid too little attention to the process through which one academic generation conveys knowledge and insight to the next. The key to successful mentorship, no matter where it is practiced, devolves from an ample dose of mutual respect. We all need mentors. I certainly did and was lucky to have as mentors Adamu Jenitongo and Jean Rouch who, each in their own way, led me on to my scholarly path. They always treated me with affection and respect. They never expected me to do things exactly their way. Instead, they patiently guided me along my path to the future, but encouraged me to find my own way to insight and revelation. They never expected anything in return.

In the wake of the HAU controversy, perhaps we need more of this kind of slow, patient  and respectful mentorship in our departments, in our professional encounters and in our efforts to articulate our knowledge to our colleagues and to the public.

For Songhay elders like Adamu Jenitongo, mastery came slowly after years of patient  learning.  Despite his long and powerful practice of Songhay healing, Adamu Jenitongo always insisted that his greatest obligation was to be a mentor who would pass precious knowledge from his generation to the next.

Is that not a model well worth following on our turbulent anthropological path?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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